House Democrats have a lot of choices to make about impeachment, from whether to focus only on the recent Ukraine controversy or loop in other issues such as obstruction of justice and potential violations of the emoluments clauses. Even if they focus only on the Ukraine allegations, they have to decide how extensive the hearings should be, and whether to subpoena witnesses whose testimony could be blocked by the Trump administration and then subject to protracted litigation.
Given the unique nature of the Ukraine allegations—which go directly to interference with the 2020 election itself—the path toward an impeachment vote is clear: House Democrats should move to wrap up the hearings and investigations and bring the full matter to a vote before the end of the year, and before voting begins in 2020 presidential primaries. According to the New York Times, this is just the path Democrats are currently planning on taking.
The House will likely have only one shot at voting to impeach the president, at least during this term. It is hard to imagine a second impeachment vote in the throes of the 2020 election season, when voters will soon get to decide whether President Donald Trump deserves a second term. And while there is much in the Mueller report and other conduct that well could merit an impeachment vote, the political momentum on these issues never materialized. If Democrats could not get their act together to push these issues in the first half of 2019, doing so in the first half of 2020 seems a pipe dream. Also, the roadblocks in these cases still exist. The House Judiciary Committee is still trying to enforce its subpoenas through plodding court proceedings that will not likely yield new information in time for a quick turnaround impeachment on Ukraine. The only way to move up the pace on that front would be to try to escalate to inherent contempt charges, which could also be bogged down in the courts and might not only distract from Ukraine but allow Republicans to portray themselves as victims of an overzealous speaker of the House bringing back powers that haven’t been used in nearly a century. Further, the public has already been whipsawed by this administration’s constant scandals, and focusing on old ones that didn’t resonate as well with the public could be portrayed as efforts to “relitigate” issues that had already been put to bed.
What Democrats need, then, is a clean impeachment strategy laser-focused on the Ukraine allegations. The allegation is easy to understand and does not require a Carrie Mathison corkboard connecting the cast of characters with yarn. Trump solicited a foreign government to provide dirt, perhaps manufactured, on one of his political rivals, Joe Biden, whom he may face in the 2020 presidential election. Trump did so while the United States was withholding crucial financial aid from the Ukraine, reportedly at his behest alone. Trump professed a concern about “corruption,” but so far as we know the only supposed corruption he has ever expressed any concern about involved generally unsubstantiated allegations about Biden’s family or other personal political and legal foes.
The story is clear, whether we hear from the whistleblower directly or not. The president has admitted the conduct; he disputes only its wrongfulness, describing his call as “very legal and very good.” And already today there is enough for the House to conclude that the president has abused his power and is worthy of impeachment. That’s true whether or not the solicitation of foreign opposition research is a campaign finance crime—I believe it is and special counsel Robert Mueller suggested it could be illegal as well, even as he raised what he considered to be First Amendment issues—and it is true whether or not Trump’s conduct as reported in the partial summary of the conversation with Ukraine’s president amounted to the crime of extortion or bribery. The Mafia-like shakedown by Trump—along the lines of: That’s a really nice country you have; it would be a shame if something happened to it—needs to be condemned whether it amounted to a technical violation of the law or not.
And this is the key point: The ordinary argument that an impeachment close to the election is unnecessary because the voters can decide whether to keep the president in office does not hold water when the impeachable conduct involves attempting to manipulate the election process itself. It is indeed a matter of national security if the president is seeking to use the power of his office—and potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer money—to get a weaker foreign government to do his bidding in coordination with his personal lawyer.
Sure, the Republican-dominated Senate might not convict the president with a necessary two-thirds vote if the House impeaches (although the silence from many Republican senators suggests they are still deciding what do to). But impeaching the president for an abuse of power in soliciting foreign help in the election will serve three purposes even if there is no conviction and removal from office.
First, it could deter the president from trying this maneuver again in the 2020 election cycle. The Mueller report did not dissuade this conduct, but an actual impeachment could be more likely to get his attention. Either way, Democrats don’t have another option to try to prevent this president from corrupting this election. Indeed, Trump has shown time and again that without any deterrence he will cheat to win, whether it was the campaign finance crime he allegedly ordered his fixer Michael Cohen to commit to cover up hush money payments to an adult film performer, or his embrace of Russia’s election interference during the 2016 election.
Second, there still will be national security officials and others privy to the calls the president makes to foreign leaders, and quick impeachment on this front demonstrates there will be the risk of more whistleblowers should he try this again.
Third, and most importantly, impeachment will get the American public’s attention during the presidential election cycle. It will go into the election knowing that the president tried to manipulate the election process—and the public—by soliciting foreign interference. (It could also make life very difficult for Republican efforts to hold the Senate majority, placing swing-state senators in a major bind with the vote whether or not to convict, or a decision to go along with any effort by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to circumvent the constitutional process by refusing to hold a trial and vote.)
Thanks possibly in part to successful efforts to diminish the Mueller report’s fndings by Trump’s own Department of Justice, Democrats have failed to make the case to the American people of the dangers of foreign interference and obstruction in the 2016 election as described in the report. By acting quickly and competently, they can avoid repetition of their mistake and give the American people the information they need as the 2020 election approaches.